Discussing Islam; Discussing Modernity

Why is there so much discussion as to what constitutes ‘Islam’ or what constitutes ‘modernity’? And is the discussion a healthy thing? This a two-fold question with a two-fold answer.

Why are we so obsessed with trying to get ‘one-up’ on the words we use to define things? Well, in terms of the ‘naming’ of things, it is mentioned that this is a very human trait at any rate[1] – or a god-given gift for Adam[2] and his children – two sides of the same coin: that through our words, we conceptualise, and make sense to the real. Or we make real and sensible through our words, our concepts. Either way, there is a power in our ‘words’. That is first.

Secondly, why is there so much discussion on definitions? Well, this is because both ‘Islam’ and ‘modernity’ are living traditions. It has been mentioned that only when a tradition has ossified[3], has become stagnant, becomes dormant, becomes ‘set in its ways’ – does it signify its death. Think of it as a giant fossil that was once a living thing, like the bones of some ancient dinosaur, which majestically decorate the halls of our museums of inquiry. We are now able to scrutinise the tradition from an angle ‘up here’, or from a counter perspective ‘down there’ and get a real panoramic ‘feel’ of the thing itself. We can ‘deconstruct’ it in entirety.

Is there any real debate on what constitutes ancient Greek religion? – Or the Viking religion? No. Not generally. Not on the popular level. There might be academic discussions that interest only a tiny handful of Einstein-looking professors in a stuffy closet somewhere – and God knows, I might join them in that interest. But such debate does not have the same hold, or the extensive chatter as does the kind that surrounds ‘Islam’ or that surrounds ‘modernity’. Of course definitions are offered and are contested from all sides, are counter-offered and so on. And the debate continues.

This takes me to the second-fold answer. Are the discussions a good thing? I say ‘yes’. For those with an existential interest in either one of them – or with both, the answer is ‘yes’. Why? We have to live. What is ‘Islam’? What is the ‘modernity’ that shapes our lives? We need to make decisions (consciously or not) on how to live in Islam and how to live in modernity. We need to quiz whether there is any truth and validity in this concept of modernity. Is this a fake reality or is it a real state of being? And of Islam… the same. We need to quiz whether there is any truth and validity in the concept of Islam. Is this a fake reality or is it also a real state of being? Are they mutually exclusive? Or not? I say, the discussion of these living traditions is a good thing – because without it – signifies its death in this world[4].


[1] “The human capacity to exchange information and ideas through speech (and recently, writing) is unparalleled in other species.” See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human#Language

[2] “And He taught Adam the names of all things; then presenting them to the angels, He said: Tell Me the names of these if you are right.” (Quran 2:31)

[3] Indicated by Mohammad Arkoun drawing on from the field of the social sciences.

[4] As to the answers to these questions, I can say two more things: firstly, finding out the answer (and living by it) is the critical project of your life; secondly, I’ll no doubt post my own observations in due course.

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